PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) --For decades lung cancer has been a killer associated mainly with smoking. But now the success of anti-tobacco a campaigns is shifting some of the focus to another group of patients -- people who've never smoked cigarettes, but still contracted the disease.
Virginia Coglitore has never been a smoker, but she's found herself fighting a form of lung cancer that's familiar to her family.
"My mother actually passed away from the same type of lung cancer that I have, and she was unable to have access to any of this medication," Coglitore
Doctors at Stanford Hospital are helping Coglitore tackle her cancer, with the help of a new generation of drugs based in part on genetics.
Cancer specialist Dr. Heather Wakelee says a key with non-smokers, is often identifying specific gene mutations that are actually driving the disease.
"It's really about genet makeup of the tumor itselfa nd that's not the same as the genetic makeup of the person," Wakelee said. "So, there's a gene change that happens that leads to the cancer."
And a recent breakthrough by Stanford researchers Max Diehn and Ash Alizadeh is helping to accelerate that identification process dramatically. Using powerful gene sequencers, they've developed a blood test that can spot the traces of early lung cancer, long before it might be caught by an imaging test.
"The cancer cells release a little bit of their DNA into the bloodstream, which means if a cancer patient has a blood draw there will be a little bit of that cancer's DNA in the blood," Diehn said. "We now use these very advanced sequencing technologies, to very specifically look for that DNA from the cancer."
He says the system is so sensitive, it was able to catch about half of the earliest stage one cancers, and nearly all of the more advanced tumors.
Beyond the value for screening, Wakelee says advanced diagnostics can help gauge the effectiveness of emerging drugs, targeted to specific mutations.
For Coglitore, the advances are giving her powerful ammunition, in her battle to defeat lung cancer.
"I went from not being able to breath, you know, being short of breath, to just having a normal life style again and that was great," she said.
As for the blood test, the Stanford group is hoping to create versions soon to detect other cancers, and perhaps someday devise a single test that could be used for screening for cancer in general.
Written and produced by Tim Didion